If Saturday night's title defense proves to be the last at 135 pounds for unbeaten Terence Crawford, consider it a fitting goodbye.
Crawford, 27, showcased the speed, length and pinpoint accuracy that have made him such a compelling star on the rise with a near shutout of respected challenger Ray Beltran.
In front of a packed house of 11,127 at the CenturyLink Center in his native Omaha, Nebraska, Crawford (25-0, 17 KOs) cruised to a unanimous-decision victory by scores of 119-109 (twice) and 120-108. ESPN.com also had it 120-108 for Crawford.
"I'm just blessed, I'm just happy," said Crawford, who made the second defense of the lightweight title he captured in March from Ricky Burns in Scotland.
With the victory, Crawford announced himself as a viable fighter of the year candidate. He also stated his intentions to move up to junior welterweight after the fight.
"This is it [at lightweight]," Crawford said. "This is it -- like Michael Jackson."
Crawford faced the best opponent available in Beltran, who many believed was robbed of the same lightweight belt he contended for Saturday when he settled for a disputed draw against Burns in September 2013.
Beltran (29-7-1, 17 KOs), a native of Mexico, had plenty of experience as former chief sparring partner to Manny Pacquiao. But he also had good size for the division and was expected to be a challenge for Crawford, who rallied to score an exciting stoppage of former featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa in June.
In the end, it wasn't that Beltran failed to provide a credible challenge, it was more that Crawford appears to be even better than we thought. Crawford switched stances throughout and used his piston-like jab to outbox Beltran. But it was the way Crawford dealt with adversity that was most impressive; he responded to single hard shots throughout with flurries of flush counter punches.
"He's a great champion," Beltran said. "I couldn't handle his timing or his counter-punching."
Beltran, 33, was never able to catch up to Crawford long enough to land more than one punch at a time. Crawford was just as comfortable creating space and scoring with hooks and uppercuts from distance as he was slipping punches inside.
"Crawford is very good, technically," Beltran said. "He sees a lot of things going on in the ring. I did OK for the first four rounds, but then he started to get effective distance on me. I thought I adjusted to him, and then halfway through the right, he readjusted."
There's an edge with which Crawford fights that allows him to toggle between the technical brilliance of his boxing ability and his natural instinct to rise to the occasion and fight when the moment calls for it. Fighting in front of his adoring home fans for the second straight bout, Crawford brought the crowd to its feet to close rounds 10 and 11 by cornering Beltran and tagging him repeatedly with flush shots.
"[Beltran] was such a strong fighter," Crawford said. "I had to work off my jab early in the fight, but because of the big crowd, I tried to push it the last few rounds. I never got for a knockout, but I just pushed it the last three or four rounds. I feel he was slowing down, but I didn't want to get careless like in the Gamboa fight, when I got caught with a stupid shot."
The victory not only adds Crawford's name into the mix for pound-for-pound consideration, but it could also be the springboard for larger fights on the horizon. Crawford was unwilling to call out any names after the fight and said it's the role of his promoter (Top Rank) and manager (Cameron Dunkin) to make his fights, but he has shown interest publicly in a showdown with welterweight titlist Pacquiao.
This past Saturday, Pacquiao defended his welterweight title in a 144-pound catchweight bout against Chris Algieri and is expected to move down to junior welterweight if a long-awaited showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. can't be made in 2015.
Gradovich settles for split draw with Velez
It took featherweight titlist Evgeny Gradovich a little bit longer than normal to turn Saturday's title defense into a full-fledged fight.
But once the native of Russia settled in, he appeared able to gain control of the pace and land the harder punches in what slowly became an action bout.
Gradovich, 28, overcame a slow start to outland Velez by a margin of 310-278, according to CompuBox. But the three judges were split as to who won the fight, which ended in a draw on scores of 117-111 for Gradovich, 115-113 for Velez and 114-114. ESPN.com scored the bout 116-112 for Gradovich.
"Give me my belt," Gradovich said. "I won the fight, and I want my belt."
Velez (22-0-1, 16 KOs), 26, got off to a quick start by fighting confidently from the outside with his jab. But Gradovich (19-0-1, 9 KOs) turned the tide in the middle rounds behind his signature pressure style that resulted in flush combinations in the center of the ring.
Although Velez showed good heart to stand and trade with Gradovich late, the native of Puerto Rico went away from the jab and body shots that gave him success early on and was far too willing to fight Gradovich's fight.
"He was a tough, awkward fighter, and I had good moments in there," said Velez, who is promoted by middleweight champion Miguel Cotto.
The fight marked Gradovich's fourth defense of the 126-pound title he won in March 2013 in his first fight against Billy Dib.
"This is hard to believe," said Robert Garcia, Gradovich's trainer. "Evgeny fought well and deserved to win. I am stunned."